The Curt Bergfors Foundation is thrilled to present the Food Planet Prize 2023 to the Agrobiodiversity Index. With US$2 million for one single winner, the Food Planet Prize is the world’s biggest environmental award.
The Agrobiodiversity Index has done something that has never been tried before. It has a vision of using science and empirical evidence to quantify and measure the sustainability of the food system, and translate this into a quantitative index for farmers, businesses, and policy, in order to accelerate the adoption of sustainable and healthy food systems.
“For the Agrobiodiversity Index, winning the Food Planet Prize 2023 means that we can take our work to the next level. Change is a process, and this will allow us to catalyze the process into policies and practices,” commented Sarah Jones, co-lead of the initiative.
“The climate crisis is already well known, compared to the biodiversity crisis. This will allow us to put the agrobiodiversity crisis on the map,” added Arwen Bailey, member of the Agrobiodiversity Index team.
The Curt Bergfors Foundation received more than 1000 nominations for the 2023 edition of the prize. A yearlong evaluations process started with initial reviews by the foundations nominations team resulting in a longlist of the most interesting nominees, picked to equally represent all parts of the food system, a wide geographical spread, and a balanced selection between technological, nature based and social innovation.
From the longlist, ten candidates were selected and put through a rigorous process of academic and practical evaluation, on-site visits by an investigative journalist and a photographer commissioned by the Foundation, and a full compliance and due diligence report. Eight nominees were finally chosen for the Food Planet Prize shortlist and presented to the jury.
On Friday morning (9 June) each of the eight shortlisted nominees were given the opportunity to address the jury in person and tell them why they should win this year’s award, and to answer a few final questions. Following this, final jury deliberations were held and concluded by a vote to select this year’s winner.
For more information on the Agrobiodiversity Index, please click here and here.
The Curt Bergfors Foundation received more than 1000 nominations for this year’s prize.
The shortlisted nominees offer a wide range of solutions to help move global food production towards a more sustainable, nature-positive, and climate-friendly future. Approaching the challenge from different creative angles, they all aim to deliver solutions for reshaping a global system that is currently exhausting the resources of the planet on which it depends.
Ranging from systems change thinking to new technologies, most of these solutions also take a holistic approach that considers social issues plaguing farmers at the bottom of the food pyramid as well as the fundamental connections between agriculture, climate change and biodiversity. Most importantly, all nominees on the shortlist have great potential to deliver lasting and wide-ranging impact.
The eight short-listed Food Planet Prize Nominees 2023 are:
The Agrobiodiversity Index
The Agrobiodiversity Index helps measure the status of biodiversity in global agriculture. With only nine crops currently making up two-thirds of the world’s crop production, it provides a centralized way to track and understand what is getting lost, risks of low agrobiodiversity, and ways to improve. It could help restore the healthy, rich diets previously provided by local produce. Learn more.
Aponiente is working to cultivate an edible sea grain for the first time. This grain, Zostera marina, can be cooked similarly to rice but has higher protein and fiber levels, and is grown with a much lower climate footprint with no need for irrigation. It could help reduce food insecurity while restoring coastal ecosystems. Learn more.
Coolfood is a one-stop solution to facilitate plant-forward, climate-friendly eating. By taking the Coolfood Pledge, large-scale food service providers commit to reducing their food related GHG emissions by 25% by 2030 with the help of tailored Coolfood tools. This approach could help feed a growing global population while keeping GHG emissions in check. Learn more.
Monarch Tractor has launched a line of the world’s first fully-electric, driver-optional, data-collecting smart tractors, offering an all-in-one solution to an industry struggling with labor shortages and increasing costs while reducing CO2 emissions. It could help revolutionize the future of farming by making it possible to run smaller-scale farms profitably. Learn more.
Protein Challenge Southeast Asia
Protein Challenge Southeast Asia equip protein innovators to embed systems change approaches into the design and implementation of their activities such that they support a deep transition towards a resilient, regenerative and socially just food system in the region. This holistic approach could help create the systematic change required achieve affordable, nutritious, sustainable protein for all. Learn more.
Ragn Sells Easy Mining
Ragn Sells Easy Mining is pioneering the recycling of phosphorus and other nutrients that are essential components of fertilizers. Their technologies could help improve food security by recovering nutrients from waste to reuse in fertilizers, instead of relying on vulnerable – and finite – global supply chains. Learn more.
Sustainable Rice Platform
Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) is aiming to redesign the rice value chain from beginning to end. Rice is responsible for feeding half our planet, but also uses one-third of the world’s freshwater resources for irrigation and emits significant amounts of methane. Through education and certified practices, SRP could help feed the world sustainably. Learn more.
The Toothpick Company
The Toothpick Company turns fungi into a bioherbicide to fight Striga, a “master weed” that has devastated an estimated 40 million farms in Africa. Using fungi as weapons in the war on weeds, it could help reduce reliance on chemical herbicides that have proven harmful to ecological and human health. Learn more.
We congratulate all the short-listed nominees and wish them best of luck for the presentation to the jury and the winner announcement ceremony scheduled to take place on 9 June 2023.
It’s that time of the year: The 2023 winner of the Curt Bergfors Food Planet Prize, the largest monetary award in the global food arena, will be announced on 9 June.
After a Covid-imposed hiatus, the winner announcement ceremony will take place in person in Stockholm, in the presence of representatives of all short-listed nominees and our esteemed jury. The jury – a distinguished octet of experts in sustainability, food production, and more – will again be co-chaired by Johan Rockström and Magnus Nilsson. Johan, the globally renowned Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, helped pioneer the concept of “planetary boundaries,” and Magnus, a Michelin star chef, is the Director-General of the Food Planet Prize.
The Food Planet Prize is special.
“It is not only the world’s biggest environmental award, but also one that is unlike almost all other prizes because it does not award you for something you already did, but for what we believe that you will do, if only you get a chance,” said Magnus Nilsson and continued:
“The Curt Bergfors Foundation and the Prize were shaped by Curt’s vision of a necessary and unavoidable revolution in our food system, and the way that it is structured, which says a lot about him as a person.”
The Food Planet Prize 2023 has received more than 1000 nominated initiatives for this year’s award, and will soon release the shortlist of eight outstanding nominees, one of which will be crowned the deserving winner of the US$2 million prize on 9 June 2023.
Selecting the winner from over 1000 nominees is a 13-month long process with various stages, including meticulous fact-checking, the involvement of investigative journalists and experts in various areas of sustainability, as well as specialists tasked to conduct a proper due diligence and compliance report on each candidate. This process is so rigorous that any of the short-listed projects that makes it through the final analysis stage is worthy of the Prize.
We cannot wait to tell you who has passed the bar set for the winner of the Food Planet Prize 2023. Check back soon for the announcement of the short-listed projects!
The relationship between land use and agriculture is a tale of how human beings have pushed natural resources to their limits. Human-induced land changes result in the loss of natural ecosystems, like forests and grasslands, as well as biodiversity. They also increase greenhouse gas emissions and diminish ocean health.
Pressured beyond its limits
With the increasing need to grow edible crops, feed livestock, and produce biomaterials and biofuel, land use is pressured beyond its limits. Since 1961, the amount of arable land needed to produce the same quantity of crops has declined by a whopping 70%. But that efficiency comes at a cost. As discussed in our long read Managing the Food System’s Main Asset: Land, it led to chemical contamination, pollution, salination, soil erosion, nutrient depletion, overgrazing, deforestation, and desertification.
Three main phenomena drive the expansion of pastures and cropland. First, a growing global population coupled with the increased consumption of animal products puts pressure on land resources. As more and more households enter the middle class, they spend a bigger portion of their income on meat. Second, the demand for plants- and fungi-derived biofuels and biomaterials is growing. And finally, as agricultural land degrades and becomes less fertile, new, ever-larger areas are exploited for planting and grazing.
Depleting our Planet’s greatest carbon sink
If we continue this business-as-usual scenario, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will fall to a quarter of its 1960 levels. Unhealthy soils also mean losing the Planet’s greatest carbon sink. Indeed, soil is not only the backbone of the food system; it also plays a crucial role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Healthy soils contain over twice the amount of carbon found in trees and other kinds of biomass. Depleted, they lose their ability to store carbon effectively, which creates a vicious cycle: reduced storage capacity makes the world hotter, and higher temperatures degrade soils further.
Since heat and drought are projected to increase worldwide with global warming, land degradation will amplify food security, famine, migration, and political turmoil. Land is one of the very few productive assets possessed by the rural poor, and most poor rural households engage in some form of agriculture. Yet poverty – and lack of sufficient land to practice crop rotation – forces people to put pressure on fragile resources by, for example, letting their livestock overgraze. This pressure causes resource mismanagement and lost livelihood opportunities. In other words, poverty both drives and is driven by land degradation. The trap created by land degradation, poverty, and inequality poses significant challenges to the development of low-income households. Each one of these dimensions is intrinsically interconnected and influences the other. This means that we cannot solve land degradation without addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality in society.
The relationship between land and water is also intertwined. If land and soil are well managed, they can act as important filters, absorbing and storing excess water in times of flooding and slowly releasing stored water during times of drought. But agriculture, as it is practiced today, has a way of upending that balance; irrigation currently accounts for 90% of global freshwater consumption. At the same time, nutrient and sediment runoff from agriculture — responsible for more than 50% of the nitrogen and phosphorus delivered from land to ocean — threatens aquatic life. “Dead zones” — large zones of low-oxygen water that affect hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of marine ecosystems — are one result. So too is contaminated groundwater, since whatever is applied to the soil, including nitrates from fertilizer, will eventually find its way into aquifers.
Drought, land use, and soil health are also interconnected. Healthy soil retains water, which in turn supports the plants and other organisms that grow there. But a lack of rainfall will quickly disrupt this system. While the effects of droughts may not be immediately apparent, they can be devastating and deadly. And as drought occurs more frequently, it can make it increasingly difficult for the soil’s water reserves to recover between dry spells. Heat and drought are projected to increase worldwide as global warming continues. In turn, this will amplify land degradation. But we still have a choice: drought can either be mitigated or exacerbated by changes in land use and cover. It’s what we do with the land that will soften the blow.
Lost land of plenty
As the global population grows in size and affluence, land-use change also reduces the Planet’s biodiversity. In fact, the insatiable demand for agricultural products has made land-use change the most crucial factor in biodiversity loss. Approximately one out of every eight plant and animal species on this Planet is now threatened with extinction. These numbers do not apply to wild animals alone: 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened. Just a handful of foods can do a lot of damage. Beef, for example, is the single most important driver of biodiversity loss. When cattle grazing encroaches on new territory, forest cover often suffers, as trees are removed and with them the habitats for insects, birds, fish, and other critters who live amid their branches, trunks, and roots. Oilseed, an essential component in livestock feed, is another food with an outsized impact on land-use conversion.
Beyond environmental consequences, land degradation’s social and economic implications are immense. According to estimates, the total annual costs of global land degradation due to land-use and land-cover change (including external losses in carbon sequestration, biodiversity, genetic information, and cultural services) are about US $231 billion per year. It also drives migration. Over 1.3 billion people, or approximately 17% of the world’s population, live on agricultural lands whose already precarious condition is further impaired by climate change and poor management strategies. When those lands can no longer adequately sustain the communities that depend upon them, their inhabitants will be forced to seek other places to settle. Land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, is estimated to cause 50-700 million people to migrate, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
Annually, 75 billion tons of fertile soil are lost to land degradation. Similarly, drought and desertification destroy 12 million hectares of land every year. It takes bold land regeneration initiatives to counter this loss of food-producing land. And it takes merciless execution.
In 2007, the African Union launched the most ambitious reforestation project to date, the Pan-African Great Green Wall Initiative. A “fortification” of trees, 15 kilometers wide, stretching 8,000 kilometers across the continent, from west – Senegal on the Atlantic coast – to east – Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden. If completed, the African Union’s bold greening project will be the planet’s largest living structure on the planet, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef.
Bringing life back to the degraded landscape of the Sahel region, the initiative could provide food security and jobs and improve lives for millions by 2030. The vision is to secure long-term and permanent solutions to regional (yet globally occurring) problems that have repercussions worldwide, like climate change, drought, famine, political conflict, and migration.
While funded by the EU, the World Bank, and the United Nations, the project has fallen behind schedule. Having encountered numerous obstacles in the past decade, only 15 percent of the wall were completed by 2020. Progress has been hampered due to the participating countries’ dramatically different levels of economic development, geographic conditions, and levels of governance. Monitoring progress and determining and evaluating the tree plantations’ survival rate has also proven difficult.
Arable land must be regenerated
“The UN Environment Programme and FAO have warned governments that they must commit to restoring at least 1 billion hectares of land – an area the size of China – by 2030”
The 2021 World Environment Day – June 5 – marked the launch of the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration initiative. It was introduced with a sense of great urgency and a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems worldwide, urging governments, businesses, and citizens to restore and rewild urban areas, grasslands, savannahs, and marine areas on a large scale.
Evidently, existing initiatives are not sufficient to stop widespread biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse. According to the United Nations Convention on Combat Desertification (UNCCD), 75 billion tons of fertile soil is lost to land degradation annually. Similarly, 12 million hectares of land are lost every year to desertification and drought alone – an area that could produce 20 million tons of grain. Furthermore, desertification and land degradation cause USD 42 billion in lost earnings yearly.
“It is evident that existing initiatives are not sufficient to stop widespread biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse.”
With the launch of the initiative, Decade on Ecosystem Restoration initiative, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have warned governments that they must commit to restoring at least 1 billion hectares of land – an area the size of China – by 2030. And pledge to do the same for our oceans.
The August 2021 publication of the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report further emphasizes the urgency to act on land regeneration. It confirms that climate change is “widespread, rapid and intensifying. The scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region of the world and across the whole climate system.” The slow pace of the Pan-African Great Green Wall is discouraging. However, there are examples of large-scale land regeneration projects that are better at staying on schedule, among them the Loess Plateau restoration program in Northwestern China.
The Chinese example
“The project successfully lifted 2.5 million local people out of poverty while securing food supplies and protecting natural resources”
The Loess Plateau, roughly the size of Spain, is named after its easily erodible, very fine-grained sedimentary soil. This north/northwest region of China is of immense historical importance, one of the early cradles of Chinese civilization and the birthplace of its agriculture. In ancient times, the plateau was highly fertile and fairly easy to farm, but centuries of deforestation and fuelwood gathering have led to severe environmental degradation and widespread poverty. The Loess Plateau became one of the world’s most severely soil-eroded regions and a significant contributor to sediments that gradually elevated the riverbeds of the Yellow River.
In the mid-1990s, the Chinese government and the region’s local communities embarked on one of the most extensive land regeneration programs in history, the Loess Plateau watershed rehabilitation project, backed by the World Bank. According to a 2007 World Bank report, the project successfully lifted 2.5 million local people out of poverty while securing food supplies and protecting natural resources. By introducing sustainable farming practices, farmers’ incomes doubled, employment diversified, and degraded environments were revitalized. As a bonus, the sediment flows from the plateau into the Yellow River were reduced by over 100 million tons per year, lessening the risk of devastating floods.
Regreening the Sinai
“If the Sinai were green and the evaporation system intact, the moisture dissipating from the coastal area would blow inland and turn into rain when cooled by the higher elevations in the mountain range further inland”
The Loess Plateau restoration program was the primary source of inspiration for the Dutch engineers that founded The Weather Makers, an organization that wants to make the Sinai desert green again. Their initiative, Green the Sinai, was launched in 2017 and aims to make Sinai’s hot and dry desert green, moist and fertile – like it once was.
Although positioned at its fringes, the Northern Sinai and Lake Bardawil used to be part of the Fertile Crescent, a region named for its rich soils, stretching east to Iraq, Syria, Iran, north to modern-day Turkey, and west to Egypt. The Fertile Crescent is considered one of the cradles of civilization, where settled farming first emerged, where access to water was abundant, facilitating riverside irrigation and agriculture. “I realized that if you changed the winds in the Sinai Peninsula by regreening it, you would flip the complete weather system of the region, which has an effect on the global climate,” says Ties van der Hoeven, Co-founder of The Weather Makers.
The Dutch engineers’ first step is to deepen the inlets of the Mediterranean-abutting Lake Bardawil. This could increase the area’s fish population. Simultaneously, applying sustainable fishing strategies and restoring formerly biodiversity-rich wetlands could spawn a thriving marine ecosystem with related socio-economic stability.
Dredging Lake Bardawil would generate vast quantities of fertile marine sediment that could be reused in multiple ways, creating a circular system combining aquaculture, agriculture, and livestock farming. Materials with high organic content could be used as fertilizer and to restore salt marshes and freshwater ecosystems. These wetlands would then trigger the first effective increase in evaporation rates, crucial to the next phase, regreening the Sinai desert that covers most of the peninsula, an area twice the size of Belgium.
Affecting the weather system from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean
“The key is to redirect the whole watershed’s water cycle step by step, from the coastal wetlands to the continental divide in the mountain range further south on the peninsula.”
If the Sinai were green and the evaporation system was intact, the moisture dissipating from the coastal area would blow inland and turn into rain when cooled by the higher elevations in the mountain range further inland, ultimately retaining moisture in the area. However, the desertified Sinai’s scant moisture blows over the mountain range and into the Indian Ocean basin. According to The Weather Makers’ model, the system consequently “sucks” air from the Mediterranean, causing a dryer and hotter climate in southern Europe while contributing to excess rainfall and typhoons around the Indian Ocean. The organization argues that this wind pattern could be reversed with a cooler, green Sinai, benefiting both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean basins.
To realize this ambitious project, The Weather Makers would use a holistic, multi-faceted approach, working with the shape of the land, to regenerate the whole watershed’s water cycle step by step, from the coastal wetlands to the continental divide in the mountain range further south on the peninsula. Many parts of their approach have already been worked out, at least on paper, but van der Hoeven needs help to create a system using the dredging sediments to fertilize the land in the best possible way.
“If you have billions of cubic meters of very rich, salty mineral sediments, the indigenous sediments which are eroded from the mountain area, hold everything to grow a robust ecosystem, and if it also has the microbes still in there to process that cycle, we’ve got to use it! And if we are dredgers, we can quickly dredge that material and pump it to specific locations,” claims van der Hoeven.
The size, scope, and complexity of these land regeneration programs make them hard to grasp and overview. It is also difficult to foresee the potential obstacles and problems the Weather Makers may run into since these involve myriad stakeholders – local inhabitants and businesses, national and regional governments, environmental organizations, banks, and NGOs – with various and not necessarily coordinated agendas.
The big challenge for policymakers, investors, and potential collaborators is to determine which bold ambitions would make the most significant difference in the shortest time. For this, both an in-depth and broad scientific understanding of the subject is critical, as well as the courage to put the greatest support where the greatest potential lies.
A leap of faith would probably help too.
Despite being made of concrete and stone, metropolitan areas are increasingly becoming havens for pollinators. Globally, cities are replacing groomed greenery with urban meadows and encouraging beekeeping. The concept of planting wildflowers to sustain bees has even caught on within the agrarian community.
On August 11, this year’s first giant Asian “murder hornet” was sighted in Washington State. An invasive species and a true thug, it preys and feeds on pollinators, complicating a rapidly unfolding global life struggle as it threatens our long-term food supply, which, to a large extent, depends on crops that need pollination.
In the countryside, the bees’ buffets of blossoms have been appropriated by extensive monocultures – growing one crop at a time over endless areas, resulting in short blooming periods, with flowers that, for the most part, don’t even offer the nectar bees require.
Intensive agriculture is nature’s bulldozer, utilizing vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to ensure ballooning harvests at the expense of soil health and pollinators. It has led to large-scale fragmentation, habitat degradation, and bee colony loss. Paradoxically, our race to feed more mouths might actually result in fewer full bellies.
City-dwellers will play an essential role in preserving biodiversity – and the declining number of bees – as housing developments, infrastructure, commercial edifices, etc., continue to take over what was once rural, flowering smorgasbords for bees. The UN predicts that 68% of the world’s population will have settled in urban areas by 2050.
Like humans, bees – both native bee species and domesticated honey bees – are relocating to urban environments, fleeing the countryside for metropolitan areas where they are less likely to encounter pesticides. “Cities with initiatives to create green spaces and limit the use of pesticides fare best when it comes to supporting bee diversity in general. In fact, a growing number of cities – such as Seattle – have banned pesticides on public lands,” explains Guillermo Fernandez, Founder and Executive Director of The Bee Conservancy, a New York-based organization that works to protect bees and secure environmental- and food justice through education, research, advocacy, and habitat creation.
Planting biodiversity-boosting, flowering meadows in urban areas has proven to enhance the conservation of pollinators. Bees thrive in blooming city environments that act as hotspots for bees’ pollination services and offer them food and shelter on prime real estate.
Bee-friendly urban gardens are sprouting worldwide. They might not be as manicured as the formal displays of cultivated flowerbeds we’re used to, but they’re kinder to the environment and cheaper to plant and maintain. These bohemian “prairies” form ecosystems that also support birds and other creatures, and their extended flowering periods are a relay race of varietals, delectable and vital to threatened pollinators. A study published in PLOS One scientific journal shows that perennial meadows produce 20 times more nectar and six times more pollen than annual versions, though pollinators are even grateful for weeds such as dandelions.
Cultivating less “coiffed” green spaces (that only need mowing twice a year) instead of cost- and chemical-intensive lawns also means curbing the substantial CO2 emissions produced by petrol- or diesel-powered mowers. What’s more, urban meadows have sturdier root systems that can retain larger quantities of water, making them drought-resistant and capable of absorbing heavy rains that might otherwise result in flooding. Add to that their capacity to filter pollution and smog, and it’s easy to see why these no-fuss green areas are becoming more popular.
In Germany, where almost half of the circa 580 native wild bee species are endangered, more than 100 “ungroomed” heaths have been planted in urban areas nationwide. Hamburg recently unveiled a series of flowerbeds on top of bus shelters. Berlin has set aside 1.5 million Euros to seed and nurture over 50 wild gardens, while Munich has already planted more than 30 of them in the past three years. Stuttgart, Leipzig, and Braunschweig have rolled out similar initiatives.
To the east, Polish entrepreneur Karol Podyma has established an educational foundation to raise awareness about urban meadows. Based in Warsaw’s outskirts, the eco-minded activist now sells wildflower seed kits and advises municipalities, locally and in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. By his own estimates, his seed company, Łąki Kwietne, sold enough seeds last year to plant an area equal to one million square meters.
To the west, the U.K. boasts the world’s largest urban meadow, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. The country’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) coordinates an annual Bees’ Needs Week with conservation groups, businesses, charities, and academic institutions. The initiative highlights the importance of pollinators and teaches people how to support them.
Ultra-small-scale landscaping helps too. Anyone with a windowsill or a garden patch can aid the bees by planting flowers, trees, and shrubs. Avoiding pesticides should be obvious; not mowing down dandelions or yanking out flowering weeds does excellent service too.
Roadsides are another area that could use less primping. Not mowing them as regularly would actually provide far more pollinator forage than urban meadows.
Suddenly, in a “woke” moment for nature, people are starting to understand that bees are vital. Pollinators affect 35% of the world’s agricultural output. They impact the commercial and nutritional quality, the volumes, and the sustained production of 87 of the top 100+ human food crops.
Bees and other pollinators (birds, bats, butterflies) ensure food security and improve the quality of our nutrition – you could even say they fight hunger. Over 20,000 species of bees, both wild and domesticated, perform about 80% of all plant pollination worldwide; approximately 250,000 species of flowering plants need them to produce seeds. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, while bees pollinate fruits, nuts, seed crops, and most vegetables. Bees also pollinate fiber such as cotton and hay and alfalfa, grown to feed livestock; one could argue that they’re indirectly responsible for the t-shirt on your back and the milk in your coffee.
Urban beekeeping is buzzing
There was a time when hipsters would take butchering classes and nurture sourdough starters to cultivate a back-to-basics lifestyle. These days, people are turning to urban beekeeping, be it to bring a bit of farming spirit into the city sprawl or as a concerted effort to do something for the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has given the practice a further boost as cooped up cosmopolites search for safe outdoor activities.
Larger apiaries and single beehives have popped up on rooftops and balconies, in backyards, public parks, school- and community gardens, and, in one extreme case, in a Manhattan bedroom where Andrew Coté, the president of the New York City Beekeepers Association, temporarily kept a colony that needed relocation. He estimates there are more than 600 hives in the Big Apple, including a 2.5m tall Empire State Building hive and a village of Dutch colonial houses, both courtesy of The Bee Conservancy. That’s rather paltry, though, compared to London, where hives have doubled in the past ten years to about 7,400. The number of urban beekeepers is rising by 200% annually, according to FAO, whose statistics also indicate that there are 90 million honey bee hives globally. The organization initiated World Bee Day in 2018, celebrated annually on May 20, a date chosen to honor Anton Janša, the pioneer of modern apiculture, born in 1734, in Slovenia, a nature-loving republic where apiculture has a rich history, both as an agricultural activity, and as an urban enterprise; the town of Idrija has kept a municipal apiary for nearly 100 years.
“The magic of urban beekeeping is seeing the impact the practice has not just on local ecology in parks, community gardens, and beyond, but also for urban individuals who get a chance to connect with nature and the creatures responsible for the food and foliage they love. The concrete jungle is still a jungle, and the chance to create wonder and engagement with the tiny pillars of our ecosystem helps foster future generations of environmental stewards,” assures Fernadez, adding that “if you want local food, you really need to have local bees. And recent research has revealed that by placing bees in a community farm or garden, you can increase crop yield by up to 70%.”
Urban apiculture can also be a tool for social change. Fernandez grew up in what he calls a ”food desert; a low-income area with limited access to nutritious food”. He founded The Bee Conservancy to alleviate hunger and support food security through bee conservation. The organization empowers low-income communities to care for bees and educate them about bee conservation.
“Beekeeping is expensive, so we created Sponsor-A-Hive to gift wild bee houses and honey bee hives to community organizations that were doing incredible work but couldn’t afford their own beehives. We strategically award and place these pollinators in community and school gardens and urban farms that provide locally grown food to soup kitchens, senior citizen centers, and other vulnerable populations. These beehives also act as educational hubs in their community. We provide hours of training and technical support to ensure the bees thrive,” says Fernandez.
As valiant urban beekeeping might be for (primarily imported) honey bees, native pollinators aren’t appreciating the gesture. Honey bees threaten their health and survival; they overpopulate green areas and hog the forage, making it harder for wild species to feed themselves and survive. The London Beekeepers’ Association (LBKA) estimates that one honey bee hive will consume 250 kg of nectar and 50 kg of pollen before the honey crop is collected. Wild pollinators just can’t keep up with the competition; they may well die out.
Alarmingly, there’s ample evidence that we’re heading toward a sixth major extinction of biological diversity. A third of the insect species worldwide are endangered. Insect abundance has declined by 75% in the past 50 years, with catastrophic impacts on our food chain. Current pollinator extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal due to human impacts, notably intensive monocropping and its use of pesticides. As a result, many bee and butterfly species could well disappear, amounting to a 40% biodiversity loss. This also affects birds, frogs, fish, and other creatures that feed on insects.
Making matters worse, bees are tremendously affected by climate change, according to a team of researchers at Penn State University. Their January 2021 study, featured in Science Daily, concluded that the most critical factor influencing wild bee abundance and species diversity was the weather, particularly temperature and rainfall, which are more important than the amount of suitable habitat or floral and nesting resources. Different bee species are affected by different weather conditions. For example, areas with more rain had fewer spring bees as rain limits their ability to collect food. Warm winters have caused plants to bloom earlier; when bees – who are used to specific climate cues – come out of hibernation, the flowers they need to feed on have already died. These balmy cold seasons, combined with longer, hotter summers that frazzle all blooms, lead to higher average temperatures that, in turn, cause reductions in bees’ body mass and fat content and higher mortality and shorter life spans.
Droughts, floods, and other extreme climate events also hinder pollination primarily by desynchronizing the demand (flowers in bloom) with the supply of service providers (abundant and diverse populations of pollinators).
The threat from within
“Competitive species are also a concern, notably the Africanized ”killer” bee and the Asian ”murder” hornet that recently gate-crashed the Northwest U.S. for the second year in a row”
If mismanaged, beehives can become cramped Petri dishes of contagion because they’re densely populated and often stacked close together. The diseases honey bees foster can easily spread to native pollinators – that are, incidentally, “better than honey bees at pollinating native crops such as berries (pollinated by blueberry bees), avocado (by stingless bees), and cucumber (by squash bees).”
So far, more than 20 honey bee viruses have been identified. They can kill developing offspring, decrease the life span of adult bees, cause spasms and tremors, reduce cognitive skills, and impair wing development. Most honey bee colonies have multiple viruses that fluctuate throughout the year.
Parasites also bring sickness and ruin. Varroa destructor has so far caused the most damage. Discovered in Southeast Asia in 1904, this invasive mite reached Europe and North America in the 1980s and has now spread almost worldwide. About the size of a pinhead, it feeds on bees’ “blood” and spreads from one hive to another, transmitting viral diseases and bacteria while reproducing on honey bee brood (developing larvae or pupae). Eventually, at high infestation rates, the mites overwhelm and kill the host colony.
Another menace to honey bees is the Nosema ceranae, a microscopic fungus that can weaken or even wipe out colonies. Spores of the fungus survive on wax combs and stored food inside colonies. When worker bees eat them, the fungus invades the lining of the intestine. If highly infected, bees cannot digest efficiently and die prematurely. Beekeepers disinfect hives and use antibiotics (fumagillin) to control the disease. However, there is evidence that fumagillin is toxic, causing chromosomal aberrations, carcinogenicity in humans, and alterations to the bee’s hypopharyngeal gland (the gland that contributes to making royal jelly). Many countries outside the Americas, including the EU, have banned it for agricultural use.
Competitive species (with evocative names) are also a concern, notably the killer bee and the murder hornet that recently gate-crashed the Northwest U.S. for the second year in a row. The latter can exceed 5 cm and feeds on other insects, including honey bees.
Then there’s Colony Collapse Disorder, an abnormal phenomenon, first recorded in 2006. It causes worker bees to mysteriously and abruptly die en masse, leaving a bounty of food as well as their queen and her offspring behind. The syndrome has been observed in the United States, most of Europe, as well as some African and Asian countries, particularly in Egypt and China. The UN Environmental Programme addressed the emerging problem already in 2010 in its exhaustive report, Global bee colony disorders and other threats to insect pollinators.
The anthropocene threats
Humans, many of us at least, are directly contributing to a fair share of damage. The air pollution we cause thwarts the symbiotic relationship between pollinators and flowers. Although daytime insects depend primarily on vision to find flowers, pollutants affect the chemicals flowers produce to attract insects, destroying scent trails. Aromas that could travel over 800 m in the 1800s now reach less than 200 m from the plant, complicating pollinators’ ability to locate food sources.
Electric and magnetic fields emanating from, e.g., power lines and cellphone towers may also influence bee behavior, impairing cognitive and motor abilities. Bees are highly attracted to electromagnetic radiation. When in use, mobile phones project electromagnetic waves that interfere with the bees’ navigation system, confusing them enough to make them forget how to find their way back home. Yet another reason to put down that device! (Even though there is currently insufficient data and research to establish a causal link between the impact of these fields and bee mortality.)
The industrial agribusiness is wreaking havoc with its use of neonicotinoids, or neonics, a class of synthetic insecticides that have become the industry’s pest-fighter of choice. First marketed in the mid-1990s, their adoption was rapid, making them the most widely applied insecticide today. When absorbed by plants, their poison manifests itself in pollen and nectar, which is then consumed by bees that consequently meet their death. But this is no instantaneous euthanasia. The poison fuses to the bees’ nerve cells, leaving the insects uncontrollably shaking and twitching before they go into paralysis and die. By then, they might have brought the toxin back to their hives, sharing it with their colony to effectively cause mass mortality.
Biologists have found more than 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen – a deadly ”pesticide cocktail”, as University of California apiculturist Eric Mussen puts it.
Green policies to ensure crop biodiversity
The recent Swedish campaign Hela Sverige blommar (All of Sweden is in Bloom) ensured that the equivalent of 1,000 soccer fields blossomed in time for Midsummer. Countrywide, 700 farmers contributed by sowing pollinator-friendly forage in field edges and fallow soil; buckwheat, clover, sunflowers, borage, and other pollen- and nectar-rich species that attract both bees and insects, providing food for birds to boot. These flowering zones also protect field game, deer, and other critters.
Hela Sverige blommar was sparked by the EU’s “green direct payment” policy that compensates farmers who adopt or maintain practices that help meet environmental and climate goals. “Greening”, as it’s also known, mandates crop diversification and upkeep of permanent grasslands that sequester carbon and protect biodiversity; it also dictates that 5% of arable land be left untouched to sustain biodiversity and habitats. The idea was to support the pollinators and create some beauty – instead of leaving those land patches unkempt?
This past spring, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences started researching 19 of the participating farms, quickly recognizing that the planted zones do indeed attract far more pollinators than those left to grow wild.
Edible microbes such as bacteria, yeasts, filamentous fungi, and microscopic algae are emerging as a potentially more sustainable and resilient option for food and food production for a warmer and more crowded planet.In this buildup, conventional agriculture not only underperforms; it also aggravates the problem.
Climate scientists are sounding the alarm, warning that the extreme weather events currently dominating headlines worldwide might already be the new “normal”. These radical shifts in temperatures and precipitation levels are of particular concern to present and future global agricultural output. How will we cultivate enough food to feed a growing population when the climate is getting increasingly warmer and more unpredictable?
While climate change poses a direct existential threat to global agricultural output, agriculture – a major contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – is simultaneously aggravating the problem. It would be truly ironic if farming – the key innovation that made complex human societies possible thousands of years ago – would now actually contribute to societal collapse in this century or the next.
Rethinking food production
Today, it is abundantly clear that our current agriculture-dependent food production model is unlikely to adapt fast enough to a warmer and more unstable climate to ensure future global food security. Hence, we need a way of producing food that is less dependent on climate stability and better at reducing food production-related GHG emissions and environmental impacts such as habitat destruction and biodiversity loss.
Substituting conventional animal- and plant-based foods with edible microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts, filamentous fungi, and microscopic algae) could be the solution.
Need for climate resilient farming prompts a microbial renaissance
“Bioreactors make it possible to cultivate microorganisms anywhere, irrespective of climate, as long as there is access to energy, water, and whatever nutrients the microorganisms need to grow”
The idea of using microorganisms as food came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s but tapered off in the early 1980s as improved crop genetics boosted global agricultural yields. Today, however, as our capacity for producing food can no longer be significantly extended by new crop cultivars, edible microorganisms are making a comeback.
In terms of climate resilience, edible microorganisms outperform conventional foods. They are typically cultivated in closed vessels known as bioreactors where environmental conditions – especially temperatures within the bioreactor – can be precisely controlled by human operators. Therefore, bioreactors make it possible to cultivate microorganisms anywhere, irrespective of climate, as long as there is access to energy, water, and whatever nutrients the microorganisms need to grow. (More about nutrients further down.)
Because the bioreactor is a closed system, it is also possible to prevent losses of water and nutrients to the external environment. However, the major drawback is the steep price tag of bioreactor-based food production; the technological infrastructure is very capital-intensive. Building a single bioreactor can cost tens- to hundreds of millions of Euros.
Edible photosynthetic microorganisms such as microalgae can also be grown in open ponds, but such cultivation systems are vulnerable to contamination from toxic algal species and predatory microorganisms.
Sustainable sustenance with CO2 -fed microbes
“From a sustainability perspective, CO2 is probably the most attractive feedstock for cultivating edible microorganisms. Turning the main greenhouse gas into a basic input in food production sounds like an idea whose time has come”
How sustainable and resilient can a particular microorganism be as a source of food? The answer boils down to the microorganism’s nutritional needs – what it “eats”. “Feedstock” is the technical term for the nutrient sources used to cultivate microorganisms. Sugar is a common feedstock used, for example, to grow the edible filamentous fungus Fusarium venenatum, which is processed into mycoprotein meat-imitation products. Although mycoprotein has a lower environmental footprint than meat, it depends on agricultural sugar cane and sugar beet production for its feedstock. It is therefore still vulnerable to disruptions to agricultural yields caused by climate change.
From a sustainability perspective, carbon dioxide gas (CO2) is probably the most attractive feedstock for cultivating edible microorganisms. Microscopic algae can use photosynthesis to grow on CO2 and have therefore long been championed as an alternative food source. However, another group of CO2-utilizing microorganisms – chemosynthetic bacteria – have recently received a lot of attention. These use a chemical energy source such as hydrogen gas rather than light energy to convert CO2 into sugar. Biotech start-ups such as Solar Foods, Air Protein, NovoNutrients, and Deep Branch Biotechnology are all developing processes involving chemosynthetic bacteria to produce dietary protein directly from CO2.
Market launch can be hit-or-miss
The success or failure of edible microorganisms as an alternative food source will ultimately rely on whether they can compete economically with conventional animal- and plant-based foods and whether they can gain widespread consumer acceptance.
Regarding costs, there is one critical trade-off to consider: the amount of food produced per surface area in the form of edible microorganisms can be significantly higher than conventional agriculture by a factor of a thousand or more. Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) proved this point in the late 1970s when constructing what is probably still one of the largest bioreactors ever built – over 60 m high, weighing 600 tons with an internal working volume of 1500 m3. Located in northern England, this behemoth cost the equivalent 300 million Euros in today’s money and could produce up to 43 000 tons of bacterial protein per year for use as animal feed. To create the equivalent amount of soy protein per year would require approximately 375 km2 of agricultural land, an area slightly larger than the entire island nation of Malta.
As a simplified comparison, Iowa in the US has extensive soy production and one km2 of agricultural land is worth 1.5 million Euros. Consequently, 375 km2 is worth 563 million Euros, nearly twice as much as the initial investment in a bioreactor producing the same amount of protein. The savings are significant, both in capital expenditure and land use.
The ICI bioreactor used simple alcohol methanol as a feedstock to grow a protein-rich bacterium called Methylophilus methylotrophus. At the time, the methanol was synthesized from natural gas and can therefore not be considered a sustainable feedstock. However, with today’s technology, it is also possible to synthesize methanol directly from CO2, a process that has already been successfully commercialized.
My own estimates have shown that a process employing direct air capture of CO2 followed by its conversion into methanol to cultivate M. methylotrophus would require circa two thousand times less surface area than growing soybeans. That said, this rough estimate does not factor in the surface area needed to power the process. But a recent study, which looked at solar-powered microbial protein production using a similar process involving CO2 capture and its chemical conversion into feedstock for microbial cultivation, concluded that the geographical footprint could be reduced by at least 90 % compared to soybean cultivation.
If financial incentives could be introduced to reward the significant land-saving potential of edible microorganisms, they would stand a much better chance at competing economically with conventional agricultural food products. It is also worth reemphasizing that thanks to bioreactors, edible microorganisms can be produced essentially anywhere on the planet while food crops are limited to areas with access to arable soils and specific climate parameters – not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, not too wet and so on.
Bioreactor to plate
The only major microbial food product on the market today is the mycoprotein imitation meat sold under the Quorn™ brand, but its production requires a sugar feedstock. However, both Solar Foods and AirProtein have announced plans to make chemosynthetic bacteria-derived food products commercially available in the near future.
Even if consumers fail to embrace edible microorganisms in large enough numbers to decrease agricultural GHG emissions significantly, edible microorganisms can still indirectly decrease food production’s environmental footprint by replacing conventional sources of animal feed such as soy and fishmeal. The global per capita consumption of carbon-intensive animal protein – meat, dairy, and eggs – continues to increase as populations in developing economies are becoming more affluent.
In the end, the primary obstacle to significantly scaling up the production and use of microbial foods and feeds is their obscurity. Both policymakers and the general public are largely ignorant of the existence and the potential of edible microorganisms as a technology option both for surviving climate change and perhaps even preventing it. Hopefully, this article can be a small step in remedying the situation.
We’ve entered a decade-long race to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Rapidly halving our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissionsis essential to our success. That’s where methane comes in.Reducing emissions of this short-lived but powerful super-heater could buy us enough time toavoid irreversible tipping points. The food system needs to cut emissions from livestock burps and rotting rice, but it’s currently lagging. How can it catch up?
Just like the glasshouse in your garden allowing vegetables to grow all year round, some of the gases we emit to maintain our modern lifestyles trap solar heat, leading to the greenhouse effect. Unfortunately, our ecosystems are ill-suited for the GHG-fueled hothouse we’re heading towards.
Carbon dioxide – the key driver of global warming – is most abundant in the atmosphere, where it lingers for centuries. But despite their lesser presence and comparatively short lifespan, other GHGs – nitrous oxide and methane notably – boast far greater capacity to radiate heat back into the atmosphere. As much as 84 times more in the case of methane. The gas, emitted mainly through human activity, has managed to contribute 30% of the overall warming of our planet though it only lives around a decade and impacts our climate for another. This illustrates how vital it is to cut our methane emissions. Fast.
This super-heater and its cataclysmic impact on climate have long been veiled by the systematic conversion of all GHG emissions to “CO2 equivalents”. Considering the tight ten-year deadline we are working with, it’s vital to redirect our attention to the gases that most deserve immediate action. The UN estimates that cutting methane releases by 45% will enable us to avoid around 0.3°C of warming by the 2040s. In its sixth assessment report published just today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also stresses the urgency of cutting its emissions. “Methane reductions are probably the only way of staving off temperature rises of 1.5C,” says lead reviewer Durwood Zaelke.
Since on-farm discharges represent about 50% of all anthropogenic methane emissions and given its short-lived nature, detoxing the entire food system – or parts of it – from the potent gas today is likely to start having significant cooling effects already in the 2030s.That will require dramatic changes in agricultural practices, livestock management, as well as eating habits.
Setting the pace for planetary recovery with methane reduction
Atmospheric methane concentrations have gone up by 150% over the last two centuries, breaking records year after year. The Global Carbon Project attributes recent rises to agriculture and waste management. Other significant sources include leaks from oil and gas extraction as well as naturally occurring “background” methane from fissures in the Earth’s surface, volcanoes, wetlands, and decomposing organic matter in nature. And concentrations may soar even further as methane releases from thawing permafrost accelerate.
The good news is: we already have the tools to cut all human-generated emissions by 45% this decade, according to the UN’s 2021 Global Methane Assessment. The fossil fuel industry – responsible for about a third of anthropogenic emissions – would benefit the most from these existing technologies. The food system, however, will need to do the heavy lifting. Behavioral changes from producers to consumers should go hand in hand with emerging technologies in cattle raising and rice farming, the two major agricultural culprits, to maximize long- and short-term impact.
Cattle: Tweaking the diet of methane’s poster child
All ruminants, including sheep, goats, and deer, burp out methane when digesting grass fibers. Together, they account for a third of agricultural emissions, but none is as vilified as cows. Certainly because, in addition to releasing more of the potent gas per kg of protein, the extensive consumption of its meat and milk drives deforestation (to make room for grazing grasslands), runs water reserves dry, and increases risks of cardiovascular diseases.
Consuming considerably less ruminant meat is undoubtedly the ideal way forward and, it’s gaining momentum. A survey conducted by IPSOS in 2018 found that flexitarians represent 14% of the world population. Vegetarians account for 5% and vegans 3%. These shares have likely increased in light of the soaring number of those who tried veganism this January and the popularity of Meatless Mondays. But behavioral change can be a slow process. The Food system needs to introduce alternative low-methane diets to allow all population segments to join the race.
Recognizing the urgency to support methane-reducing efforts, the Food Planet Prize rewarded not one but two initiatives tackling our protein craze in its inaugural year. Prizewinners icipe and Future Feed respectively tap into the power of nutritious insects for human and livestock consumption, and methane-blocking seaweed as a feed supplement for cows.
Beyond seaweed, more and more researchers are investigating other methane-reducing feed supplements. In this category, one finds tannins, oils, grains, seeds, as well as garlic. All attack the problem at its source: they prevent bacteria in the cow’s first stomach from turning grass into methane.
But each solution comes with its own set of challenges. Corn production, for example, requires large fields, causing soils to release CO2 instead. Flaxseed increases the percentage of undigested fibers in manure, another source of methane. Mitigation through unprocessed cottonseed, which also improves dairy cows’ milk production, is offset by high nitrogen emissions.
That’s why some scientists intend to avoid these trade-offs by repurposing methane found in stables as an energy source or by breeding climate-friendly cows. Others envisage vaccines that create antibodies against methane-producing microbes found in cattle guts or probiotics to facilitate their digestion. Startup Zelp instead develops a mask-like device that converts methane to CO2 directly from the cow’s breath.
Most of these innovations are still in their infancy. Their preliminary efficiency varies from 20% for seed oils to 50% for probiotics and a striking 80% for seaweed. If successful and widespread, these tweaks may allow cattle to retire from its unfortunate methane poster child image and restore its environmental reputation. After all, cows fertilize our grasslands and keep them healthy. Though technology is bypassing animals altogether with beef cultured from cows’ muscle tissues. Several startups are indeed extracting stem cells from actual cows to grow meat in vitro, in labs.
Rice: Purging water from the production of our beloved grain
To savor delicious sushi, jollof, or risotto, we need rice – a lot of it. In fact, one-fifth of our calory intake comes from rice which is a staple food on all continents. As much as farming rice is a matter of food security, it’s also a highly polluting activity contributing 11% of anthropogenic methane. This is due to the grain’s semiaquatic nature. It thrives under submerged conditions, but flooding rice paddies prevents oxygen from penetrating the soil. Waterlogged soils being conducive for the decomposition of organic matter, the practice results in the perfect breeding ground for methane-producing bacteria.
While diversifying our diet is the ideal long-term solution, the food system must also commit to producing rice with a low-methane footprint. Producers around the world are already balancing between too little (lower yields) and too much water (higher methane). Some tackle the quantity; others focus on the frequency of watering.
Rice farmers in China, for example, have reduced their methane emissions by 70% since the 2000s, thanks to single mid-season drainage. Instead, in India, intermittent irrigation is the water management practice of choice. Both methods help roots feed oxygen to the soil and thereby reduce methane production. They further showcase the same advantages, namely increased yields and decreased water usage. They also display the same drawback, i.e., higher nitrous oxide concentrations, a greenhouse gas even more potent than methane. Scientists, however, estimate the Net GHG emissions to be positive.
Unfortunately, these are not one-size-fits-all solutions. Case studies by the World Resources Institute found that these water-reducing techniques translated to zero yield gain in the United States. This stagnant productivity constitutes an obstacle to their adoption. Lack of control of irrigation and drainage systems is yet another hurdle. Moreover, accelerating water scarcity makes irrigation increasingly unrealistic.
Some farmers are therefore turning to ground cover rice production systems, aka covering paddies with plastic films to retain soil moisture. The catch? The practice, also known as mulching, pollutes soils with microplastics as films break down. Biodegradable mulches may hold the solution and allow rice farmers to increase their yields while lowing their methane output.
Limiting water inputs is actually a two-in-one solution since an average of 3000–5000 liters of water is needed to produce one kilo of rice. This is twice or more than what is used for other grains. But nature-based solutions are not always about reducing irrigation. Some consist of removing straws and weeds from flooded paddies and therefore avoiding their decomposition.
On the high-tech end, and similarly to cattle raising, scientists are exploring new breeds and additives as mitigation strategies. A Danish team proved that adding cable bacteria to (potted) paddy soils led to an impressive 90% decline in methane. The mechanism is simple: these microbes compete for the same resources (CO2 and hydrogen) as those who emit methane, and since they are more efficient, methanogens starve to death.
Beyond agriculture: Mitigating spillovers from the food system
While most of the food system’s methane emissions stem from rice and beef production, other agricultural activities contribute too. One example is fertilizers used to dope agricultural productivity running off into water ecosystems. Here, they cause a phenomenon known as eutrophication. The excess nutrients – primarily nitrogen and phosphorous – wash from fields and pastures to lakes, rivers, and wetlands. This leads to algal blooms and boosts the growth of other organic matters, both of which release methane when decomposing.
Similarly, coastal aquaculture’s methane emissions are higher than untouched coastal habitats such as mangrove forests and salt marshes. Agricultural waste, often burned or dumped in landfills, is another critical food system source of methane. And here too, solutions exist. Companies like Kriya Labs transform post-harvest residues destined to be burned into biodegradable packaging. Another example is the Sustainable Rice Platform which helps farmers minimize losses with improved harvesting techniques, storage technologies, and alternative markets for rice that would otherwise be discarded.
Case in point, an estimated one-third of all food produced is wasted, contributing to 6-8% of all human-induced GHG emissions. Rotting food emits huge amounts of methane. Reducing food waste across the supply chain is therefore crucial. Again, meat is of particular concern: its carbon footprint – mostly derived from the super-heater – contributes to more than 20% of the total food waste footprint while less than 5% of it is wasted. Cereals and vegetables are the most wasted.
No climate mitigation without limiting food-related methane
Natural systems have always released greenhouse gases, but human activity is emitting them at unsustainable speed and unlivable levels. For our survival, we must stay within 1.5°C limits before, very soon, reverting to pre-industrial levels. But at 1.2°C excess, summer 2021 already feels apocalyptic.
The race against the clock was punctuated by ravaging floods, drought, heatwaves, and wildfires. The frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events seem even to have exceeded experts’ worst-case scenarios. And the harder and more often they hit, the more methane we release. Scientists are already studying how to produce rice in a hotter climate while limiting methane emissions. Rice straw-derived biochar seems promising. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Let’s not test our resilience before practicing our adaptability.
Yes, humans are creatures of habits, and behavioral change can take time, but we can change course in the face of imminent danger. The ozone hole success story is a testimony to our ability to adapt. And this is as imminent as it gets. Reducing methane offers a chance to keep the planet bearable until it is livable again. It will buy us time and help us stay in the race.
Solutions are not perfect, but we should not let perfect get in the way of good. So, whether with seaweed-fed beef or a new breed, rainfed or low-water rice, organic or rescued food, all or none of the above, the food system needs to leverage social, scientific, and technological advancements to cut its methane emissions. And it must do it now.
The COVID-19 pandemic has focused our attention on food safety and foodborne illness. Our food is the source of life, but increasingly it also causes disease – and death. Today’s food system interacts with human health as much as it does with the health of our environment.
Late May 2021, Russia’s veterinary watchdog, Rosselkhoznadzor, announced the country would start vaccinating dogs to protect them from COVID-19. So, when Fido, Spot, or rather Boris (one of the most common Russian dog names) cozy up in Russian beds, they will not risk being infected – nor will Mom or Dad.
“About 70% of all infectious diseases are spread to humans from animals – and almost 50% come from the agricultural sector.”
Apes, cats, and minks also pick up the dreaded coronavirus. Tigers and lions in zoos all over the world have fallen severely ill or died from COVID-19, infected by their zookeepers and caretakers. In Denmark, 17 million farmed minks – with furs valued at US$1 Billion – were slaughtered in panic when it was discovered they were infected and could pass the disease back to humans in a mutated form. At this point, infection by pets is not considered a significant risk, but Russia is obviously not taking any chances.
The animal connection
Undeniably, zoonotic diseases – transmitted between animal species and humans – have become increasingly common and are now considered an escalating threat. Many of these illnesses, such as swine and bird flu, are directly linked to the food system and, above all, large-scale livestock farming. Others, such as COVID-19, SARS, Ebola, and HIV, are caused by our encroachment on wild habitats, making it easier for viruses to transmit to humans. About 70% of all infectious diseases are spread to humans from animals – and almost 50% come from the agricultural sector.
Feeding a growing global population is a monumental challenge. To do so without compromising – and instead promoting – the health of people and the biosphere has proven insurmountable so far. The pandemic has brought food safety to the forefront, exposing how vulnerable we are to food-related illnesses.
Although the source of SARS-CoV-2 infection – the infectious agent that caused the COVID-19 pandemic – is not fully clarified or understood, it’s “likely to very likely” (according to the WHO) linked to Wuhan’s wet market, where the virus migrated from bats to humans via one or more intermediate host animals, brought to the market live. Pangolins, porcupines, chipmunks, bamboo rats, giant salamanders, snakes, foxes, wolf pups, raccoon dogs – and ordinary dogs – rank among the 30 candidates traded live by 10 licensed stall owners at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood market in late 2019.
China boasts one of the world’s most advanced and varied gastronomies, with a wide definition of what is edible, compared to Western cultural norms. Dog meat has been featured on menus for thousands of years; an estimated 10 to 20 million dogs – both farmed and stray – are slaughtered for human consumption every year, and strays are still an important protein source in poor rural communities. There is even an annual Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, Guangxi, last carried out on June 21, 2020.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has officially declared that dogs are companions and should not be treated as livestock. Indeed, in the last couple of decades, keeping dogs as pets has soared in popularity. Today, dog ownership is expected to exceed 130 million individuals, almost doubling U.S. numbers. In fact, pet dogs have become a prominent status symbol. In wet markets such as Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, there’s a thin line between slaughtered canines on display, live ones in cages, stray dogs perusing stalls for a bite or a lick – and cherished pets carried by shoppers. Cute little Jūn, Băo, or Jí (popular Chinese dog names) might bring home some less-than innocent freeloaders from their outings.
Wuhan is also the focal point for SARS-CoV-2’s alternative genesis story – the lab-leak theory, currently gaining traction again. The presumed source would be the city’s acclaimed biological research facility, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), spearheaded by the now world-renowned “Batwoman,” Dr. Shi Zhengli.
China, very unhappy with the unflattering attention, has launched alternative hypotheses about COVID-19’s provenance: why not frozen seafood from Southern Asia or possibly Norway?
Destruction of nature is the root cause of pandemics
In January 2020, China imposed a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals for food. But the demand for exotic luxury foods – along with traditional Chinese medicines – had been on the rise for some time, bolstered by a poorly regulated wildlife trade and rampant poaching, bringing some species to the brink of extinction. The Sunda Pangolin is one of them – endangered all over Asia – due to high demand both for its meat and its scales, used in traditional medicine.
This temporary ban coincides with preparations for the Convention on Biological Diversity that China is hosting in Kunming from October 11 to 24, 2021. This is where world leaders hope to agree on a new action plan to stop global extinction in the next ten years. According to a paper published in Science, 8,775 species globally are at risk of extinction as a result of illegal trade:
“The trade of wildlife for luxury foods and medicinal parts and as pets is now so substantial that it represents one of the most prominent drivers of vertebrate extinction risk globally. Each year, billions of wild plants and animals are traded to meet a rapidly expanding global demand, a demand so insatiable that, globally, US$8 billion to $21 billion is reaped annually from the illegal trade, making it one of the world’s largest illegitimate businesses.”
Today, it’s quite clear that the root cause of pandemics is the destruction of nature. Our increasing demand for food is the primary driver, pushing agriculture and livestock farming to annex ever-more land. In the past 40 years alone, agriculture has expanded its land use by 10 percent – a landmass larger than South Africa – costing rapid loss of rain forests and other vulnerable habitats. The safety distance between wildlife and us is continuously shrinking, making it easier for viruses to leap from animals to humans. Physical distancing is a safety policy that should translate from the social to the wildlife scene as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s direct effects on mortality, combined with indirect effects such as under-treatment of other diseases and increased infant mortality, have lowered global life expectancy by several years. But, as bad as this sounds, COVID-19 is not the worst killer with a food system connection.
Food; a manifold hazard
Every year, 600 million people catch some 200 different types of foodborne diseases. But food impacts our health in many other ways. Unhealthy food is in fact one of the predominant killers. Globally, premature deaths due to unhealthy food – all forms of non-communicable diseases; including obesity, malnourishment, cardiovascular disease, and cancer – amount to 10-11 million annually. (https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(19)30041-8/fulltext)
Food safety programs focus chiefly on keeping bacteria at bay. They are the most common cause of food poisoning, but parasites, fungi, and other microorganisms in food and drink can also cause poisoning. Additionally, many of the hygiene measures that aim to keep food safe, such as the use of plastic packaging, drastically contaminate living environments and marine habitats in particular. Microplastics entering the food chain – and our bodies – is a growing health concern.
Health dangers in food have many sources, including harmful cooking conditions. Annually, three million premature deaths are caused by indoor smoke and pollution, primarily related to cooking on primitive stoves.
Chemically intensive agriculture spills numerous environmental toxins, carcinogens, and other harmful substances into the biosphere, ricocheting directly and indirectly on human health. Human emissions of toxic and long-lived substances like organic compounds, heavy metals, and radioactive substances add to grave health concerns, short- and long term. These substances can reduce fertility, cause cancer, and lead to genetic defects.
Industrial processing and ultra-processing of foodstuff often add further malicious substances, undermining human health.
Two of the UN’s SDGs, “Zero Hunger by 2030” and “Good Health and Well-Being”, seem far from attainable in this decade.
It is indeed an irony that the fuel of life: food – the way we source, produce, and consume it today – harms not only nature but us as well.
In this updated Food Planet Prize report, Dr. Afton Halloran gives you the big picture on land use, agriculture and how the two relate to food. For a quick summary from Afton – take a look at this 4-minute video!
Today, one-third of the Earth’s land surface is dedicated to crop and livestock production — more than the total area of Europe, North America, and South America combined. New research stresses that the way we’re converting natural ecosystems for pasture and crop production is the main cause of habitat loss and reduced biodiversity. Food has a significant impact!
We need to change the way we produce and consume food to better balance land use and agriculture. But how? Numerous new solutions could solve our conundrum; some are ripe for implementation, others are in development for future use. Understanding the relationships between the multiple functions of agriculture — food and fiber production, environmental-, cultural- and socio-economic outputs — is essential to comprehending which approaches are best suited to each context. Although humans have dramatically shaped land over history, this generation and the generations to come have an opportunity to leave it in a better state than we received it. Doing so begins with acknowledging the ground beneath our feet.